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The Thomaskirche in Leipzig is the place where J.S. Bach was employed for more than half his adult life, not to mention where his mortal remains lie. Centuries and several political upheavals later, Ullrich Böhme now serves as the organist there, a position he has held since shortly before the end of the Cold War. If his program reflects not only this rich history of the Thomaskirche and his current efforts to carry on its traditions, Böhme also honors the music of two famous composers associated with Leipzig (Bach and Wagner) and couples it with the music of either one of their lesser known students (Bach coupled with Krebs) or lesser known teachers (Wagner coupled with Weinlig). Underlying this is also recognition of a notable bicentennial of birth (Wagner) and a tricentennial of birth (Krebs), which might otherwise be commonly overlooked.

Music historians pack so much symbolism into Bach’s death that they traditionally recognize it as the event that triggered the end of the Baroque era. As one of Bach’s star pupils, Johann Ludwig Krebs (1713-1780) distinguished himself by keeping the Baroque organ music flame alive long after his master’s death in 1750. Unfortunately, this stubborn reverence also paid its toll on Krebs’ pocketbook during his modest career, while composers of his generation, including some of Bach’s own sons, were finding and even inventing more lucrative positions, exploring new styles, and paving the way for composers such as Mozart and Beethoven.

In his Toccata in E major, Krebs commences the piece with a strenuous pedal solo consisting of rapid 16th-note passages and even moments of polyphony that go on for 53 bars. Following this are lush choral textures punctuated with more 16th-note downward sequencing patterns.

In Krebs’ much shorter and less exhausting Fantasia à giusto italiano in F major, the left hand carries the sinuous, continuous melody throughout. Because there is no tempo indication, it has been interpreted anywhere from two to four minutes in duration.

Under the German system of music (in which our B-flat is their B and our B is their H), Bach was able to symbolically sign his name to the last and (perhaps deliberately) unfinished triple fugue in his final collection of contrapuntal works, called The Art of the Fugue (Die Kunst der Fuge). Many composers have followed this implied dare by Bach to write a fugue on his chromatic and seemingly unmusical moniker, and Krebs’ version is one of the most stark, keeping rhythmic ingenuity at a minimum and stacking and overlapping the motive into kaleidoscopic harmonies.   

Among his many accomplishments as a musician, Christian Theodor Weinlig (1780-1842) conducted the famous boys’ choir at the Thomaskirche (known as the Thomanerchor, which last year celebrated its octocentennial), but also served as an important teacher at the church’s famous school (Thomasschule), where a teenaged Wagner was among his pupils for one year. Weinlig and Bach are a few of the many composers who have written tuneful, homophonic chorale preludes based on the famous hymn on Psalm 137 by the Martin Luther pupil Wolfgang Dachstein, “An Wasserflüssen Babylon” (On the Rivers of Babylon). Today, this familiar melody is known in Lutheran hymnals as “A Lamb Goes Uncomplaining Forth.”

Aside from his studies in Leipzig with Weinlig and subsequently at the university there, one of the otherwise minor details of Richard Wagner’s (1813-1883) life is that he was actually born in Leipzig, even though his childhood was spent mostly in Dresden. The “Pilgrims’ Chorus” is probably the most familiar music from Wagner’s Tannhäuser; it is the reverent four-voice hymn that begins the popular, often-performed overture, erupting into a grandiose theme accompanied by a pulsating, descending violin line. In the story, the Pilgrims are returning to their homeland in Wartburg and are singing in praise of it. The “Gebet der Elisabeth” is the scene immediately following the “Pilgrims’ Chorus,” and is a slow-moving, reflective aria for high soprano.

Franz Liszt (1811-1886) (who famously transcribed Wagner’s “Pilgrims’ Chorus,” originally for piano, which has been adapted here for organ) set the text of a German version of the Prologue to Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s substantial collection of poems called The Golden Legend (which is also the second part of Trilogy of Christus) for choir and orchestra. Published under the title Die Glocken des Strassburger Münsters (referring to the famous Medieval bells in a cathedral in the Alsace region of France, where composer Wolfgang Dachstein served as organist), Liszt felt inspired to write a prelude to this prologue with the choir singing only the Latin word “excelsior” (from the root “celsus” meaning “upraised” or “lofty”) repeated over and over, symbolizing an ascent ever higher and higher. Some have observed that the opening motive may actually set the word “excelsior,” and that it also serves as an upward-moving fanfare in the context of an E-flat major tonality that nonetheless remains ambiguous with its shifts and avoidance of cadences. The same motive also appears as the “Last Supper” (Liebesmahlthema) motive in Wagner’s Parsifal. This organ version was prepared, probably for pedagogical purposes, by the English organist Edwin Lemare (1866-1934).

Five works by Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) appropriately complete this Leipzig-themed program, especially two chorale preludes from a collection of 18 that are traditionally called the “Leipzig Chorale Preludes”: “An Wasserflüssen Babylon,” BWV 653 (see the Weinlig prelude for the same hymn, above); and “Vor deinen Thron tret ich hiermit,” BWV 668 (“I enter here onto your throne,” often associated with another almost identical hymn known in English as “When in the Hour of Deepest Need”). “Vor deinen Thron” is known as the “Deathbed Chorale” based on the story that Bach dictated it to a student while blind and dying in bed. It maintains a slow G major throughout, alternating between three-voice fugue expositions (in which the response is inverted), answered methodically by one of each of the phrases of the four-square melody.  

A much more difficult, technically challenging piece, the Fantasie and Fugue in G minor, BWV 542 (also known as “the Great G minor”), is formed by an alternating organization of ideas, similar to but distinct from the Baroque ritornello form. The Fantasie is ABABA, and the Fugue, based on the way it “returns” to the original G minor of the opening, is ABABABA. Both parts of the piece are overwhelming in their intensity, and the listener will probably recognize the melody that serves as the fugue subject, although similarities to a popular Dutch song of the day (“Ik ben gegruet”) may be only accidental.   

The two remaining works of this program, the Prelude and Fugue in D major, BWV 532, and Toccata and Fugue in D minor, BWV 565, belong in the group of Bach’s best-known organ works, especially the latter, which is probably the most famous organ work of all time by any composer, serving as the soundtrack to countless popular scary movies. The D-major Prelude is in three major sections, which appropriately serve as introduction, exposition, and coda, with the coda startlingly shifting into D minor – probably familiar as the music during the baptismal scene in The Godfather. The Fugue subject has a nursery rhyme simplicity to it, but as it develops prodigiously into a longer piece of music, its catchiness represents a foreground to a much more sophisticated background of sturdy and elaborate architecture.

The D-minor Toccata is so familiar that any intermediate organist can render most of it by ear, but a master organist recognizes the intricacies of the complex rhythms that Bach has painstakingly written out. Today, it is especially challenging – given the familiarity of the piece and natural penchant to ham it up – to remain faithful to the original rhythm. The Fugue exposition presents the device of pedal tone (even though this occurs mostly on the manuals), while the extended development sections maintain a high energy even though they often consist of nothing more than alternating simple sequences from one manual to the other. An extended coda closes the piece dramatically and chillingly.

Gregg Wager is a composer and critic. He is author of Symbolism as a Compositional Method in the Works of Karlheinz Stockhausen. He has a PhD in musicology from the Free University Berlin.